Elizabeth Gilbert's Confessions of an Over-Giver
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Oprah.com | From the December 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
She was always generous—whatever she had was yours. But when she struck it rich and started bestowing things like houses, suddenly things got complicated.
My whole life I've been an over-giver. My general operating policy has always been, "If it belongs to me, don't worry: You can have it!" Over the years, I have over-given with my money, my stuff, my opinions, my time, my body, ("I know we've only just met, but of course we can make out in your cousin's car!")
You name it, I have given it forth. I am especially over-giving toward people I just met yesterday afternoon at the gas station.
Now, over-giving is not quite the same thing as generosity. Generosity is neither entangling nor aggressive, because the generous person doesn't expect anything in return.
The over-giver doesn't expect anything in return either—except to be petted and feted and praised and loved unconditionally for the rest of time (and I was)—so that's not emotionally loaded. Nothing toxic there!
For most of my life, my over-giving problem was relatively contained, limited by my own resources. But then a few years ago I wrote this book called Eat Pray Love, which sold about a bajillion copies, thus transforming me overnight into a wealthy woman, and presenting me with the amazing newfound opportunity to not merely over-give but to over-over-give.
Oh, bliss! I was like an alcoholic locked in a distillery—what wonderful and terrible luck!
So of course I went on a full-octane over-giving bender. I gave to some charities and good causes, but mostly I gave heaps of money to people I knew and loved. I paid off my friends' credit card bills, caught them up on their mortgages, financed their dream projects, bought them plane tickets, tuition, therapy, gym memberships, vehicles. Sometimes (well, twice), I even bought them houses.
A neighbor dubbed my munificence "hip-hop charity"—because it reminded him of the way rap stars get rich and then buy Mercedes-Benzes for everyone back in the hood—but sharing money with my intimates felt so much more satisfying than sending off checks to some distant organization:
I could see (and feel!) the gratitude so personally; it was a drug-like pleasure.
Also, my giving bonanza went a long way toward leveling off the apparent karmic imbalance of my own crazy success—an imbalance that had left me feeling profoundly uncomfortable.
(Why had I struck it rich while peers of equal or greater talent still struggled? Why not spread the good fortune around willy-nilly?) Finally, it was joyful and empowering: I was a dream-facilitator, an obstacle-banisher, a life-transformer! In short: Giving away money to my friends was so much goddarn fun!
Until suddenly it wasn't.
Until suddenly I didn't have some of those friends anymore.
I didn't lose those friends for the reasons you think, either. It isn't because "money is the root of all evil" or because "money changes everything." Listen—of course money changes everything, but so does sunlight, and so does food: These are powerful but neutral energy sources, neither inherently good nor evil but shaped only by the way we use them.
When I lost my friends, it was because I had used the power of giving on them recklessly. I swept into their lives with my big fat checkbook, and I erased years of obstacles for them overnight—but sometimes, in the process, I also accidentally erased years of dignity.
Sometimes, by interrupting his biographical narrative so jarringly, I denied a friend the opportunity to learn his own vital life lesson at his own pace. In other words, just when I believed I was operating as a dream-facilitator, I was actually turning into a destiny disruptor.
Even worse, sometimes my over-giving left friends feeling shamed and laid bare. Sometimes, for instance, "lack of money" hadn't been a friend's problem in the first place: Maybe her real problem had been lack of confidence or organization or motivation.
Maybe by erasing her money problems, all I'd done was suddenly expose her other problems. Maybe such rapid exposure is a dreadful thing to do to somebody. (As a great British wit once quipped, "You can always tell people who live for others, by the anguished expressions on the faces of the others.")
All I know is, those friendships withered under a cloud of mutual discomfort, and now we cross the street to avoid running into each other.
Years ago, in India, a monk warned me, "Never give anyone more than they are emotionally capable of receiving, or they will have no choice but to hate you for it."
At the time, the advice sounded cynical, even cruel. It certainly flew in the face of Christianity's highest charitable ideals, as famously expressed by Mother Teresa: "Give until it hurts."
But these days, I've come to believe that when you give heedlessly or with an agenda, you actually can give until it hurts, and that the person who is most gravely injured in the exchange is the other guy.
So I don't do it anymore.
Don't get me wrong: I'll always be a giver. I still see generosity as one of humanity's great natural watersheds—a place where lives can be cleansed, renewed, filtered back toward grace. But a watershed is a delicate ecosystem, so I've learned to watch where I step.
I'm more likely to trust the well-established charities nowadays than to practice social engineering within my own circle. Granted, I don't get the same endorphin rush that I used to get by waving a magic wand in someone's face...but I do get to keep my friends now, so that's a boon.
And I try to keep it in scale. The other day I was in a New York subway station, watching a woman I'd never met before struggling to make her outdated MetroCard work in the turnstile. She didn't speak English, and nobody was helping her out.
I wasn't in a hurry, so I took ten minutes to carefully show her how the whole system worked—how to buy a new MetroCard from the machine, how to add credit to it, how to swipe it. I didn't give her any money; I just gave her my attention and then went on my way.
It was a simple exchange, but I think it made both of us feel good. I was a little tempted to buy her a house, mind you, but I talked myself out of it—because as much as humanly possible these days, I try not to give anymore until it hurts. Instead, I only give until it helps.
After that, not a penny more.